The Story of Radlands

Radlands is my bestselling post-apocalyptic duel game for two players. This is the story of its birth.

Initial thoughts

My "initial thoughts" document for Radlands begins thus:

Game that combines the best of Magic, Star Realms & Elysium.

Stats more like Star Realms. Plays more like Magic. No counters, no shuffling. One deck.

(Magic is the original game of duelling spells and creatures, Star Realms is a spaceship warfare deck-builder in a little box, and Elysium is a Greek mythology game about making combos out of cards.)

I wanted the depth of play of Magic, I wanted the simplicity and "lots of gameplay in a little box" of Star Realms, and I wanted the card combos of Elysium.

Card types

I knew nothing about my world, other than that it was a confrontational battle between cards, of some sort. I could've gone for a battle between spaceships, like Star Realms. I thought that lacked character. I chose "people" as my main card type. People are interesting. What's next? How about places? That's logical.

Stuff can happen. So, I added "event" cards.

I also had "items", which found no home in such a small game. They were sidelined and removed during condensation. "Ongoing effects" also appeared, becoming policies (enchantments, in Magic-speak.) These were not essential either, and dwindled to nothing during early development.

Nothing but cards

Magic has lots of extra bits, a deck for each player, recording of life totals, and counters and tokens. It also has complex rules.

I wanted to squish all this into a little box. It wouldn't be Magic, but it would do what Magic does.

If I were to get the level of gameplay of Magic, but in a little box of cards, I was going to have to think very carefully. I had to do all kinds of functional and interesting things, with nothing but cards. (The publisher later added a few reminder tokens, but the game is still a pure card game.)

This is where I began. My document continues:

Think about the basic properties of cards. Use them wisely.

Sideways cards

A card can be turned sideways. In Magic, it's a handy reminder that the card has been used this turn.

My game had no place for such luxuries. Being sideways had to mean something important, not just be a reminder.

Magic's creatures have power (attack strength) and toughness (health). I wanted my game to be simpler than that, and also not be like Magic. Every Magic knock-off retains these two numbers, and just calls them something else. I could've used them, too.

To make things even harder for myself, I felt like there was a very elegant game in there, that didn't rely on numbers like power and toughness. Star Realms doesn't have them. Chess relies on its pieces, to create the gameplay, and doesn't need numbers at all. I could do the same thing with this game.

I decided that a card being turned sideways meant that the card was "damaged". If it was damaged a second time, it would be discarded from play. Magic's diverse power and toughness numbers are key parts of the game. Would it be possible to make a good game where every person was just "healthy" (upright) or "damaged" (turned sideways)?

Face-down cards

The next property of a card is that it can be face-down. A few Magic sets use face-down cards as "surprise guys", that you suddenly turn face-up. I considered that option, but my game didn't need something so fancy. It needed rudimentary stuff. So, I made the face-down card a "citizen". On the back of each card was a picture of a regular guy. These would be people with no special powers, that could be created and used by all kinds of other cards and characters. Magic uses separate cards as "tokens", in the same way, and they're fun.

Card in front of another card

Later, I decided that the relative position of cards could be used too. One person could "protect" another person, by standing in front of them. Magic doesn't use the position of cards, but this was all valuable real estate for me. The final game has columns of three, where one card can "protect" another, which can protect yet another.

The objective and resource system

What was the objective of this game?

In Magic, the goal is to reduce the opponent from 20 life to 0, recorded on paper. Similarly, in Star Realms, you have 50 "authority", kept track of with a pile of 1, 5, 10, and 20 cards. This was clunky, and numerical. I didn't want it in my game.

What was the resource system of this game? When you wanted to play a card, how did you do so?

In Magic, the player plays more and more land cards. The more lands they have, the bigger the creatures and spells they can play.

I decided that my game would smoosh these two things together. The "lands" and "life total" would be one and the same. You would destroy the opponent's lands (locations in my game) in order to win. Your locations would also provide the resource (power, in this game) that you could spend, to play cards. (Later, power became innate, and not connected to locations, so you couldn't lose it and become crippled.)

Would it be enough to have only a few locations? Magic and Star Realms had twenty and fifty "life". My game effectively had three locations, which each could be damaged, and then destroyed. That was like six life points. Was that enough?

What was the interaction in the game?

In Magic, most of the interaction is from combat. Your creatures attack the opponent, and the opponent can either take the damage, or choose to defend themselves with their creatures, causing them to fight your creatures.

Most creatures in Magic have abilities. These are just paragraphs of text describing some extra, useful effect the creature has. Abilities are not necessarily related to combat. Abilities can be ongoing benefits, effects that happen at a certain time, or effects you can manually use, by paying a cost.

I wanted simple interaction, not the complex and procedural combat system that's central to Magic. I didn't also want this slew of different types of abilities.

As it was, I decided on having no combat system at all — just the manually-activated type of abilities. Most of these abilities would be injurious to the opponent's people and locations. This turned out to be enough interaction.

In Magic, the creatures are more about their power and toughness numbers, which are important for combat. Abilities are just an extra. Because of the absence of combat (and power and toughness numbers) in my game, I honed in on my people's abilities, and made them the core gameplay. This made the game like Elysium, in that it was tricky and interactive, and about finding ways to make your people work together, to do cool stuff. Everyone had a little ability, and that was all they did.

The end

This article is not the development of the entire game that became Radlands, but it is the key point at which the game took its fundamental shape.

The game worked, and I refined it into an elegant, novel, and eventually very successfully-published game.

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